It is a well-known fact that woolly mammoths have been extinct on the American continent for some 10,000 years.
Something that is much less known is the fact that some of these mammoths actually lived for some time longer than that. In fact, a small number of them continued to live on smaller islands located around the Arctic Ocean. Sadly, this only lasted for a while before they started dying off due to the massive climate change. And the even sadder part of all of this is that most of them died alone after living in isolation for years.
A lot has already been researched and said about these hairy behemoths. They were similar in size to today’s Asian elephants, with the major difference being in their furry coat. They were still around during the last ice age, and this is evidenced by their depictions on walls found in the caves of our ancestors.
Two main factors aided in their extinction. The first was the rise in temperature which started to get drastic after the last ice age. The second was the relentless hunting of mammoths by early humans.
The small population of around 300 animals survived only because of the fact they were isolated on Wrangel Island. They continued to live there peacefully for a few thousand years more. Unfortunately, the thing that caused the extinction of this small group of mammoths was not hunting or the rising heat. It was their bad genes. The genetic diversity on the island was so small that bad genes were passed on more frequently, becoming more common in newer generations of mammoths.
The mutations researchers found had a number of significant consequences. An important one being the change of proteins found in the urine of animals. This fact gains significance when you factor in that mammoths chose their partners partially based on the unique odor of the potential mate’s urine.
Another important aspect that was affected by the bad genes is that they started having trouble reproducing. A pretty important trait, especially for a species on the brink of extinction.
An additional effect of mixing bad genes was the change in the quality of their fur, but since temperatures were rising this did not have a significant effect on their longevity.
A Potential for Resurrection
Also, findings like this play a major part in determining whether projects like the de-extinction of these and other extinct animals is plausible. Bringing animals like these back from extinction is a noble idea, but it is an idea that can have many adverse effects on species that are facing extinction at the moment. Any effort to bring back extinct species may consume a large number of funds that may be used to preserve other endangered species.
Still, researchers are looking into the possibilities of modifying an elephant’s embryo with gene modification technologies like CRISPR in order to make the newborn elephant look similar to the woolly mammoth. Experiments such as this may potentially have many adverse effects and must be carried out with extreme caution.